A cruise to see Mitre Peak is one of the best ways to visit Milford Sound

Best Way To Visit Milford Sound | Ultimate Guide & Tips

Breathtaking Milford Sound is one of the most popular destinations in New Zealand, sometimes even referred to as the 8th wonder of the world. From the dramatic cliffs that solemnly tower over the glass-like sea, to waterfalls that pulse down lush greenery, alcoves so quiet you can hear the birds sing, and the tumultuous Tasman Sea at its far end, Milford is mesmerizing. Especially on a sunny day. But even on a rainy day, which happens more often than not, Milford Sound is still beautiful. Its cliffs become shrouded in mist, the waterfalls multiply, and the air turns melancholy and mysterious. I’ve been lucky to be here for both and have created this guide on the best way to visit Milford Sound, including how to get here, how to plan your day, what to expect, and tips on the best way to experience it.

Taking a cruise is the best way to visit Milford Sound


About Milford Sound

Milford Sound is located on the southwestern coast of the South Island. Although it’s called Milford Sound, it’s not actually a ‘sound’, it’s a ‘fiord’. Fiords are carved by erosion from ancient glaciers, like Milford was many thousands of years ago. Sounds which Milford was mistaken for are created when the sea floods a river valley.

The glaciers that so elegantly carved this area left the tumble of cliffs and gullies here and carried in giant rocks. These rocks now serve as a barrier, keeping the waters of the fiord calm and protecting it from ocean swells.

Milford Sound is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest places in the world with almost 200 days of rain a year. Annual rainfall reaches a crazy 22’ (7 m) a year. In fact, Milford Sound has been known to get almost 10” (250 mm) in 24 hours!

Seeing the sights via cruise is the best way to visit Milford Sound


Because if this, it’s likely to be raining when you visit. In fact, the rainiest season is during the summer months, when most people visit. And while Milford Sound is beautiful in all conditions, a calm, sunny day here is much more majestic.

Top Sights At Milford Sound

Mitre Peak

Mitre Peak is close to the shore, so is one of the first things you will see. It’s the tall peak in the photo below.

A cruise to see Mitre Peak is one of the best ways to visit Milford Sound
Mitre Peak

This magnificent peak, which gets its name as its shape resembles a bishop’s mitre, is the highest in Milford Sound, rising up 5,560’ (1,690 m).

Sinbad Gully

Sinbad Gully is the low lying area just to the left of Mitre Peak.

Lady Bowen Falls

Lady Bowen Falls is also close to the shore, but on the east side of Milford Sound. This is the biggest permanent waterfall here at 531’ (162 m). Bowen Falls flows from Bowen River, which also provides both drinking water and electricity to the Milford Sound area.

A cruise to see Lady Bowen Falls in one of the best ways to visit Milford Sound
Lady Bowen Falls

Stirling Falls

Stirling Falls is the second largest permanent waterfall in Milford Sound, at 508’ (155 m). It’s known as Wai Manu Falls in Māori, which means cloud on water.

Stirling Falls

Some cruises pass by close enough that you get misted by it, also known as a ‘glacial facial’.

To get a feel for the massive scale of these cliffs, notice the tiny boat to the left of the waterfall.

Fairy Falls

Fairy falls is much smaller than Lady Bowen and Stirling Falls. In fact, if it hasn’t rained recently, it may even be dry. This means it’s not a permanent waterfall here.

Our captain took us almost directly below this delightful waterfall and told us to look for rainbows as we looked up, which we did see glimpses of. We also got misted by this waterfall, which he said was good luck.

Seal Rock

Seal Rock is one of the few rocks here that doesn’t have a sheer face, so New Zealand Fur Seals are usually basking here during the day. These seal were almost hunted to extinction for their fur in the 1800’s, but are now protected and thriving.

The Fur Seal are not the only wildlife that you can see in Milford Sound, but they are the most likely. You can also see dolphins, penguins, kea (an alpine parrot), and Kiwi (although they are nocturnal). Some visitors have even been lucky enough to see the endangered Southern Right Whale.

Mount Kimberly

Mount Kimberly is another impressive peak at 4,271’ (1,302 m). It also has the name The Lion, which it is said to get from its shape.

The Tasman Sea

The Tasman Sea is at the far end of Milford Sound. It’s named after Abel Tasman who navigated it in 1642. Its Māori name is Te Tai-o-Rēhua.

Foreshore Walk

Foreshore Walk is a .25 mile (400 m) loop walk along the edge of the water with beautiful viewpoints and information panels on Milford Sound. It starts at the car park and wanders through the beech forest along the water’s edge.

Milford Sound Foreshore Walk is one of the key stops on the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound
Foreshore Walk

This walk is perfect to do before your cruise starts. Keep an eye out for Kea Birds as you may be able to spot one here.

The walk is about 15-minutes with return and is wheelchair accessible. To learn more, visit Milford Sound Foreshore Walk at the doc.govt.nz website.

Undersea Observatory

There is also an Undersea Observatory at Milford Sound. It’s located in Harrison Cove. This stop, however, is only accessible on select cruises (more on that below).

Seeing Harrison Cove by cruise is one of the best ways to visit Milford Sound
Harrison Cove

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Best Way To Visit Milford Sound

Day Tours To Milford Sound & Cruise

Day tours combined with cruises are the most popular way to see Milford Sound, with coaches leaving from both Te Anau and Queenstown. This is best for those that just want to kick back and relax and not worry about driving, but the days are long. Especially if departing from Queenstown which is 4 hours away. Te Anau is half way between Queenstown and Milford Sound, about 2 hours away. With a 2-3 hour cruise on top of the cruise, your day can be 7-13 hours long. Just for the coach ride and the cruise.

There are several options for these tours. If you’re leaving from Queenstown, this tour is very popular: From Queenstown: Milford Sound Cruise and Coach Day Trip. This option: Milford Sound Coach & Cruise Full Day Trip, picks up in both Queenstown and Te Anau, making minimal stops.

The downside of these tours, however, is that you miss all the magical little detours along the drive between both Queenstown and Te Anau, and Te Anau and Milford Sound. There are over a dozen stunning places to stop to take photos, short walks, tracks to lakes and summits, waterfalls, valleys, creeks, and more.

Some coach tours do stop at some of these, like this small group tour from Te Anau: Premium Full Day Tour and Cruise. Very few coaches from Queenstown make these stops due to the length of the drive.

Self-Drive To Milford Sound & Cruise

Another option is to self-drive to Milford Sound and then take a cruise (see cruise options below). This is best for the independent traveler that wants to pick and choose the best sights along the Southern Scenic Route and Milford Road to explore before cruising (or on the way back).

Driving distances:

  • Te Anau to Milford Sound – 73 miles (118 km)
  • Queenstown to Milford Sound – 179 miles (288 km)

As noted above, if driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound, you need to drive past Te Anau, so if self-driving, it’s really best to stay at least one night (but more if you can), in Te Anau. This gives you time to make stops on both of these stretches of road.

A few of the stops along the way include: Devils Staircase, the Wilderness Reserve, Lions Point, Mistletoe Lake, Mirror Lakes, Eglington Valley, Lake Gunn, Monkey Valley, the Hollyford Valley Lookout, Key Summit Track, Marian Falls and Marian Lake Track, the Chasm, and more.


Some are just quick photo stops, while some are treks to lakes or vistas. All well worth the stop as this area is gorgeous.


To read more about these places, see my post on Te Anau to Milford Sound Drive | An Epic Day Trip. I’ll be following up soon with one that includes the stops between Queenstown and Te Anau.

Cruise Operators

A cruise is the most common way to experience Milford Sound. They are included in the coach tours noted above, but if self-driving, you need to book this on your own.

There are several cruise companies that operate outside the visitor center here, each providing very similar cruises. They may vary slightly, but all cruise out from the beginning of the fiord to the Tasman Sea and back, passing by the main sites above. Most cruises last 2 hours, but the cruise that includes the Undersea Observatory takes 3 hours.

It’s best to book in advance, especially if you want a mid-afternoon cruise. These book up fastest as this is when the coach buses arrive and the busiest time at Milford Sound.

Cruises are offered by RealNZ (this is the company I cruised with), Southern Discoveries, Cruise Milford, Mitre Peak Cruises, and Pure Milford. One of the most popular cruises that includes the Underwater Observatory is this one by Southern Discoveries.

Although they may be similar, review the details of each before picking the one you want. Some discount the earlier cruises, as they are in less demand, and sometimes even the late afternoon ones.

These cruises will not only be less expensive, but will also likely have fewer people on them. This means less people running from one end of the boat to the other for the best photo. Some offer food for sale, while some offer only beverages. Some hold a large crowd, while some take smaller groups.

Make sure to arrive at the visitor center 20 minutes before departure. Be aware that once you arrive at Milford Sound, it may take 30 minutes to an hour to find a parking and walk to the visitor center.

The parking meter is a shared meter, so there can be a line to wait to pay. You will need your license plate number, so make sure to note it (you have a rental car, it will probably be on your keychain).


Scenic Flights

If you’re short on time, or just want the ultimate experience in Milford Sound, book a scenic flight over it. There are a variety of operators offering both small plane or helicopter flights, like this helicopter tour: Half-Day Milford Sound Helicopter Tour from Queenstown – 203. It looks incredible and takes only 2.5 hours round trip from Queenstown.

Or, book a flight to Milford Sound and then cruise, on a tour like this one: Milford Sound Scenic Fly-Cruise-Fly Departing Queenstown, which takes about 4.5 hours.

I would love to do this one day, but it is expensive! I also prefer the more immersive experience of a cruise.

Cruise & Kayak Milford Sound

You can even kayak in Milford Sound. Milford Sound Cruise with Optional Kayak Tour is a small cruise offering that operates at non peak hours, stops at the Underwater Observatory, and offers an optional kayaking experience in Milford for a group of 8. Even with all the extras, this offering is still only two hours.

Best Month To Visit Milford Sound

Warmest Months

The warmest time to visit Milford Sound is December through February, which is summer in New Zealand. Highs will average in the mid to upper 60’s (18-20 C). Within this, December and January are the wettest months of the year. It typically rains more than half the day of the month in December and January with about 23-25” of rain.

February is the warmest month of the three, with rain slightly less than half the days of the month, with about 20” of rain.

Seal Rock

Driest Months

The months with the least amount of rainfall are June, July, and August. This, however, is winter, with highs in the 50’s (10-11 C). The number of days with rain are similar to February, with rain slightly less than 15 days of the month, but the amount of precipitation is less. This means you’re still likely to get rain.

Milford Sound: Sun vs Rain

Seeing the massive cliffs here surrounded by mist and the waterfalls cascading at full throttle on a rainy day is still amazing, just not as mesmerizing as a sunny day. Rain is the heart and soul of Milford Sound, so you’ll be experiencing it in its natural element.

Here are some photos from my first trip to give you an idea of what it’s like.


The images here include Mitre Peak in the upper left, Stirling Falls upper center, and Lady Bowen Falls below. The pictures may look like they are in black and white, but they are in color.

Try not to worry too much about the weather, just be aware that it will probably rain and try to manage your expectations. If it’s really important for you to avoid the rain, stay in Te Anau (or Milford Sound) for a few days and select the best day of your trip to visit.

I did this. Not solely with the intention of selecting the best day for Milford Sound, but because there was so much I wanted to see in the area. I admit that did try to pick a good day, as I had so much rain on my previous trip, but I just ended up being spectacularly lucky.

If you stay in Te Anau for a few days, what else is there to see and do? A lot! I will be creating a post on this in the near future, but there’s not only Milford Track, which is known as the ‘finest walk in the world’, there’s also the Routeburn Track and the Kepler Track, all 3 included in New Zealand’s 10 “Great Walks”. And if you don’t have the 3-4 days to do the full trek on each them, look into day walks on each.

You can also visit the Glow Worm Caves in Te Anau, which would be great for a rainy day. There’s also Lake Marian Track, Key Summit Track, and many little amazing side stops on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound. This is Fiordland National Park and it’s impressive. Definitely worth exploring more of when visiting Milford Sound.

Best Time To Visit Milford Sound

The best time of day to visit Milford Sound is when the fewest visitors are here, which is in the morning. Most visitors take the coach tours in from Te Anau or Queenstown, so arrive around noon or 1:00 PM.

This is also why there is a small discount for the early morning cruises and the ones in the middle of the afternoon are the most expensive. Sometimes the latest cruises are also discounted for this same reason, as the coaches have all left.

Each cruise has a slightly different ‘early cruise’, ranging from about 9:30 to 11:00.

What To Bring/Wear To Milford Sound

As it’s more likely to rain here than to be sunny, and the weather can change very quickly, dress in layers and bring a good waterproof jacket with a hood.

A hat and sunscreen is a good idea as if it’s a sunny day, the sunlight can get intense on the deck of the boat. Insect repellant is also a good idea as sometimes there are mosquitoes and sandflies. If you’re prone to being bit by mosquitoes, the sandflies will love you too. And, of course, don’t forget your fully charged camera.

Depending on the length of your trip to Milford Sound and if lunch is included with your cruise or not, bring enough water, food, and snacks to last the day.

Where To Stay To Visit Milford Sound

Te Anau

Te Anau offers a freindly and relaxed atmosphere and is perfect for a stay to experience all this area has to offer.

Budget

  • I stayed at Te Anau LakeView Holiday Park & Motels. This is a great place for solo travelers, families, and those looking for a place to camp of park their camper. There’s a shared kitchen and laundry facilities. The staff is also very friendly and helpful.
  • Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers sits across from the lake and is a 5-minute walk to town. They offer dorms and private rooms, some with lake views. They also have a movie room, a BBQ, and laundry facilities.

Affordable

  • Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments sits on the lake a short walk from town. They offer studies and apartments with lake and Mountain View’s, as well as disability access rooms.
  • Lakefront Lodge sits right on the lake, a 5-minute walk to town. They offer Studios and Apartments with kitchenettes, a shared BBQ, laundry facilities and rooms with partial lake views.

Moderate

  • Radfords On The Lake also sits on the lake and offers studios and suites with mountain and lake views a 3-minute walk to town. They also offer disability access rooms. in both conditions, extremely wet and rainy and a beautiful sunny day

Milford Sound

Alternatively, you can stay the night in Milford Sound. There is minimal lodging here though, so book very early if you want to stay here! Because of its magnificent location, accommodation here is definitely a splurge. Note: there is no freedom camping at Milford Sound.

  • Milford Sound Lodge, Milford Sounds only ‘land’ accommodation, offers rooms, suites, and chalets with Mountain View’s. They also offer premium campervan sites. It’s a 3-minute drive or 30-minute walk to Milford Sound. A two night minimum stay is required.
  • Another option is Milford Sound Overnight Cruise – Fiordland Discovery, a scenic overnight boat cruise around Milford Sound. You can enjoy a soak in the on-board hot tub, or relax in your private heated cabin. Continental or cooked breakfasts and a 3-course dinner are provided. They also offer additional activities, like kayaking and tender-boat excursions.
Stirling Falls

Tips For Visiting Milford Sound

  • Plan your trip in advance and decide your best way to visit Milford Sound. Do you want the ease of a coach ride and a cruise, the freedom to self-drive and explore the sights along the way before your cruise, or a scenic flight?
  • Book your choice in advance as the best times can sell out in advance. Usually a day or two is sufficient, but check how quickly your option is booking up.
  • If you self-drive, there are very few gas stations between Queenstown and Te Anau and none between Te Anau and Milford Sound, so make sure to fill your tank before you leave!
  • Leave plenty of time for the drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound and don’t forget that you still need to find parking once you arrive and walk to the visitor center. This in itself can take 30 minutes to an hour.
  • There is no mobile phone coverage along Milford Road, so download all maps you want in advance.
  • For the latest conditions on Milford Road visit nzta.govt.nz.
  • There are several places where the road narrows to one lane. Be respectful and wait until it is your turn to use the road.
  • Obey all traffic signs and be respectful of anyone working on the Milford Road.
  • If your vehicle is slow (like a camper), be considerate and let others pass.
  • Lastly, be prepared to look for the beauty of whatever weather the day of your trip provides.

If you’ve visited Milford Sound, let me know which was your best way to visit.

Want More Of New Zealand?

Queesntown, the adventure capital of the world, Franz Josef Glacier, one of the steepest glaciers in the country, and Wānaka, gateway to the Southern Alps and Mount Aspiring National Park are also nearby and incredible must-visit places on the South Island.

If you’re a wine lover, stop in Marlborough to taste some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc. There are many famous wineries (a non famous ones) to stop at and enjoy great food and wine. Even better, many now also offer beer as well.

If you love to hike, see my posts on Routeburn Track, Abel Tasman Coastal Track, The Tongariro Alpine Circuit Vs The Crossing, Ben Lomond Track, Key Summit Track, Cape Brett Walkway, and A Day Hike on Kepler Track. Routeburn, Abel Tasman, and Kepler Track are three other New Zealand “Great Walks”.

For an overview of all the best things to go in New Zealand, how to get around, money matters, and more, see my New Zealand Travel Guide.

Safe Travels!

Julie

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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